By Asaph Ng'ethe Macua
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 26 November 2019)
Master artist Mzee Asaph Ng’ethe Macua is now nearly 90 years old. But for his first 30 years he battled life-threatening diseases, due partly to early years of poverty and corporal punishment meted out by cruel teachers who didn’t know better.
Yet not even ill-health and frailty (ultimately resulting in loss of one lung) could stop the first-born son of an Anglican reverend from becoming one of the first barefoot lads to reach Alliance Boys and then gain admission to Makerere University where he was a classmate of a future Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki.
Mzee Macua began writing his autobiography, ‘From Misery to Joy: A Journey of Endurance’ in his eighties after defying countless obstacles, including the myth that Art cannot make one a successful professional and the lie that Art is useless. The amazing life he recounts in colorful detail in his book clearly shows how Art can be fulfilling not only financially but also career-wise.
Having been the Chief Artist with first the East African Literature Bureau and then the Kenya Literature Bureau, he had been surrounded for years by books, designing book covers and drawing illustrations correlative with book content. Yet he noted that in all those years, he had never come across an autobiography (leave alone a biography) of a Kenyan artist. There have been countless articles written about them, but he’s correct to claim his book is the first.
Filled with anecdotes about the extraordinary people he has met in his life, Mzee Macua was at Makerere when Princess Elizabeth became Queen and he was selected to be one of the few students to meet the Royals. He also met the first President Kenyatta several times, painting his portrait and even witnessing his being handed the reigns of power by Prince Philip in 1963.
But Macua’s book doesn’t just dwell on his encounters with the high and mighty. He’s also met a myriad of ordinary people, particularly medics who helped save his life even when his condition seemed hopeless and he’d literally spent years in hospital beds.
One surprising detail that Macua alludes to is with reference to his meeting Kenya’s former Vice President Joseph Murumbi who he says wanted to establish at National Art Gallery and even held meetings with other top government officials like the then Minister of Education, Jeremiah Nyaga. But he suggests the reason the project failed was because “some artists for their own selfish reasons…opposed the idea.” This is contrary to the commonly-held belief that it was forces inside the Kenya government who opposed the plan. But as Macua’s perspective is based on an eye-witness account, it’s difficult to dispute.
Another example of what he calls ‘unfinished business’, Macua writes that he’d hoped to paint a Black Jesus for the church. But the idea was adamantly opposed by church elders who, even in the 1990s insisted Jesus must be painted white. Macua wasn’t ahead of his time. He was right on time, as is his book, the masterpiece he always wanted to create.